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Beyond Columbus:
Teaching the Lessons
of 1492


The voyages of Christopher Columbus provide unlimited teaching opportunities -- opportunities that can be pursued without glorifying the man or denigrating his achievements. This year, observe Columbus Day by helping your students explore Web sites that put the controversial explorer's achievements into historical perspective. Included: Links to on-line lesson plans for teaching about Columbus across the grades!


"What is the difference between a true observance and a mere celebration? A celebration is a birthday party for which we put candles on the cake, forgetting imperfections, glossing over errors, and raising our glasses in unadulterated praise. ... An observance examines the whole event, puts it into a modern as well as a historical context, examines the world in which the event took place -- its mindset, ecology, demography, religious outlook, sociology -- admits to the existence of both positive and negative aspects, and communicates the true significance of the event, a significance which if properly understood, resonates as much today as in the time when it happened."

-- J. Challinor and Wilcomb E. Washburn

In 1992, the Columbian quincentennial, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to North America, spawned a national vilification of Christopher Columbus. For centuries, Columbus had been hailed as a brave explorer whose daring, perseverance, and navigational knowledge led to the "discovery" of America. Almost overnight, he became known as "a brutal person and an incompetent navigator who ushered in centuries of death and oppression for those who lived on this continent before his arrival." (See Thirty Million...and Counting.)

The controversy continues today.

In 1998, Honduran Indians held a mock trial, in which Columbus was found guilty of the charges of "genocide and robbery resulting from the 1492 beginnings of the colonization of the Americas." And in Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus, an article currently available at the Taino Inter-Tribal Council Web site, anthropologist Jack Weatherford says, "The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names. In January, we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history."

As a result of the strong emotions Columbus Day arouses, teachers across the country are faced every year with the decision of whether to teach about Columbus at all. Most come to the conclusion reached by John J. Patrick in the article Teaching About the Voyages of Columbus. Patrick said,


"The voyage of Columbus in 1492 is a turning point in world history. After 1492, peoples and civilizations of long-separated regions began to develop connections that have led to the incipient global community of the 1990s. It is their global significance that justifies a prominent place in today's school curriculum for the four voyages of Columbus to the Western Hemisphere, not the mere fact of their 500th anniversary in 1992 and thereafter. Educators, therefore, should use the Columbian Quincentenary as a ripe time to renew and reform teaching and learning about these events of long ago that still affect most peoples and places of our world today."

His words are as valid for this year's observance of Columbus Day as they were in 1992.

In fact, the voyages of Columbus provide unlimited teaching opportunities, in all areas of the curriculum. And those opportunities can be pursued without glorifying the man or denigrating his achievements. This year, you might want to observe Columbus Day by helping your students explore one or more of the following sites. Whether you choose to teach about Columbus, or to teach around

Columbus, you're sure to find something here you can use.



Think About It
Challenge students to consider a different point of view:

North and South America are often called the "New World" because the great discoverors of Europe were the first to explore it. The fact is, however, that indigenous people of the Americas had been here long before the so-called New World was "discovered." They had developed rich cultures that were often devastated by the newcomer Europeans. The use of the term "New World," therefore, is a very Euro-centric view of the exploration of the Americas.

Discuss with students the use of the term "New World." Do they agree or disagree that it is an appropriate ter

You might encourage students to explore 1492: An Ongoing Voyage, a Library of Congress on-line exhibit. This site focuses on the peoples who inhabited the Western Hemisphere before 1492 and on the Europeans and Africans who arrived during the 16th century. The section Christopher Columbus: Man and Myth provides an interesting portrait of the explorer before he set out on his voyages of discovery. But the real value of this site is the information it conveys about the lands he visited and the people who lived there.

Students might want to follow up their exploration of the Library of Congress exhibit, with a visit to The Americas. Here, they'll find information on those lands and people today, as well as insights into the issues that affect them and how history influenced those issues.


Columbus's voyages brought together people of very different cultures. One of the results was the introduction of new foods. Foods introduced to the New World by the European explorers included wheat, barley, sugarcane, rice, olives, and bananas. The natives introduced the Europeans to such foods as maize, potatoes, cocoa, peanuts, tomatoes, pineapples, and chili peppers. Students can learn much more about food and its importance to Columbus's voyages at Christopher Columbus ... His Gastronomic Persona. This site describes the voyages of Columbus and his crew with an emphasis on food -- what they ate, how they cooked it, and how they stored it. Do your students know that Columbus used barrels of wine as ballast, or that salting methods were so good that properly stored meat could last as long as 40 years? They'll learn it here! And don't miss the Recipes from Christopher Columbus ... His Gastronomic Persona.

Of course, Columbus's voyages had a greater impact on the Indians than the introduction of new plants and foods. Europeans also introduced new diseases, which had a devastating effect on the Indian population. The dramatic decline in the numbers of Indians resulted in social reorganization, cultural changes, and ecological effects that will be of special interest to environmentally aware students today.

For a more thorough understanding of the Indian culture, encourage your students to explore Indigenous Peoples' Literature, which includes Indian prayers and an insight into Indian philosophy, or Christopher Columbus, which includes a section on stereotypes and racism.


Of course, you can't conduct a study of Columbus without connecting it to a study of geography and navigation. For example, students might want to visit The Event Inventor and try some quadrant projects.


Many Columbus resources provide an incomplete picture of the man. Students can get a clearer picture of the explorer's thoughts and ambitions by reading his own words. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook provides students with that opportunity. There students can learn about Columbus by reading Medieval Sourcebook: Christopher Columbus: Extracts from Journal or Medieval Sourcebook: Columbus's Letter to the King and Queen of Spain, 1494.

Your students might even be inspired to write a few words of their own!


The Columbus Doors, at the east entrance of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, were commissioned in 1855 to celebrate Columbus's life. Students will be fascinated as they explore the symbolism of the doors and contemplate how the public perception of Columbus has changed in the intervening years. The doors include panels tracing Columbus's life -- from his unsuccessful attempt to persuade a council appointed by King Ferdinand to support his theory of a new route to India to his death in 1506. The site includes a history of the doors as well as an exploration of their symbolism. This is another site to consider if you have time for only one. It's sure to provoke discussion among your students, as well as, perhaps, an inspiration for artistic expression.


Finally, if you don't have time to develop your own lessons as part of a Columbus Day observance, you might want to consider the lessons and activities at these sites:

Other Worlds: The Voyage of Columbus [archived copy]
A lesson plan for high-school students, this lesson is designed to help students gain an understanding of European society during Columbus's time, as well as the cultures of the indigenous peoples he encountered during his voyages. Students explore a number of Web sites to learn about the Indians of North, South, and Central America and use the information they find to develop an understanding of the perspectives of those people. Finally, students write a journal entry on the encounter with Columbus from the point of view of a Native American. The lesson plan includes questions, links, and extension activities -- everything you need to complete the activity.

Christopher's Crossing
Students learn about the voyages of Columbus using a board game developed by California teachers. The site includes everything you'll need to create your own game, including clear explanations of how the game is played, sample questions, replicas of the question cards and game board, and a complete set of rules. With appropriate questions, students of all ages will have a ball with this! They won't even know they're learning!

The Two Sides of Columbus
This is a simple lesson that even younger students can enjoy. This Teachnet activity provides the dimensions of Columbus's ships. Students use that information (and chalk) to draw to scale on the school parking lot one of the ships. It's a quick and easy project for a sunny day!


Discoverers Web
This project provides links to all kinds of information about voyages of discovery and exploration.

Christophorus Columbus
This page, part of Discoverers Web, contains links to pages with information about Columbus.



Be sure to see Education World's Discoverer's Day archive for more great lesson ideas for teaching about the explorers.

Updated 1/23/2013